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"Where were you in '62?" That was the tag line from the marketing campaign for American Graffiti (1973) and it seemed to bring back a flood of memories for moviegoers who first caught the film on its initial release. George Lucas's nostalgic portrait of what it was like to be a teenager in a small California town in 1962 became the sleeper hit of 1973 and spawned numerous imitations such as the TV series, Happy Days, and flicks like The Lords of Flatbush (1974). Produced for only $750,000 dollars with a 28-day shooting schedule, American Graffiti went on to gross more than $55 million; all this for a movie that every studio in Hollywood had turned down before Universal reluctantly agreed to release it. And let us not forget that American Graffiti also helped launch the movie careers of such relatively unknown actors as Harrison Ford and Richard Dreyfuss and enabled Lucas to produce his dream project - Star Wars (1977).
According to The Hollywood Reporter Book of Boxoffice Hits by Susan Sackett (published by Billboard Publications), American Graffiti was "shot entirely on location in San Rafael and Petaluma, small Northern California towns. Between the hours of 9:00 p.m., when it was just dark enough, and 5:00 a.m., before the sun would come up, the main streets of these towns were cordoned off for the night shoot. Locals for miles around were encouraged to rent their vintage hot rods for the film at $25 a night, and they really got into the spirit of things, drag racing between takes, having themselves one last fling at the '60s. Over 400 cars were eventually used, among them the yellow dragster driven by Paul Le Mat's character, "John." Look closely at its unusual license plate - THX 138 - an obvious inside joke and reference to the Lucas film (but with only three numerals, as permitted by California law.)"
In an interview with Judy Klemesrud of The New York Times, Lucas revealed the inspiration for the film: "It all happened to me, but I sort of glamorized it. I spent four years of my life cruising the main street of my hometown, Modesto, California. I went through all that stuff, drove the cars, bought liquor, chased girls...a very American experience. I started out as Terry the Toad, but then I went on to be John Milner, the local drag race champion, and then I became Curt Henderson, the intellectual who goes to college. They were all composite characters, based on my life, and on the lives of friends of mine. Some were killed in Vietnam, and quite a number were killed in auto accidents." Lucas also admitted that the filming of American Graffiti was "a terrible, terrible experience. I felt very rushed, and there were endless other problems, too, like it was extremely cold. On the second night of shooting, we were half a day behind, and to be half a day behind on a 28-day schedule is like the end of the world. Then we had focus problems on the camera, and the assistant cameraman was run over by a car and had to be taken to a hospital. Then we had a five-alarm fire. That was a typical night."
Seen today, the cast of American Graffiti is a time capsule snapshot of the most promising up-and-coming talent in Hollywood during the early seventies. In addition to Richard Dreyfuss and Harrison Ford, the film boosted the careers of Ron Howard, Cindy Williams, Paul Le Mat, Kathleen Quinlan, Candy Clark, Mackenzie Phillips, Bo Hopkins, Charles Martin Smith and Suzanne Somers. It also re-introduced younger audiences to legendary DJ Wolfman Jack as well as a sterling 'oldies' soundtrack featuring everything from "Little Darlin'" by The Diamonds to "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers.
A few last bits of trivia: Originally, Universal executive Ned Tanen wanted to change the title American Graffiti to Another Slow Night in Modesto, thinking audiences would think the former was an Italian film or a movie about feet. Producer Francis Ford Coppola liked the title Rock Around the Block, but luckily, Lucas stuck to his guns and refused to change it. There were other fights he didn't win. One scene was lost because Universal could not buy the rights to a song. The studio also insisted on the exact running time of 110 minutes, as outlined in the original contract, and cut one of Lucas's favorite moments as a result - a sequence involving Steve (Ron Howard) in a confrontation with his math teacher. "That scene was one of the best in the film, " Lucas revealed in an article by Stephen Farber in Film Quarterly. "It really strengthened that character. In the film they put out, Steve is a nothing. The odd thing is, it was the second most popular scene in the movie at the premiere, according to the cards we got back."
In 1979, B.W.L. Norton directed a sequel, More American Graffiti, which reunited most of the original actors in an episodic film covering the years 1964-67. Instead of focusing on one night like the original film, More American Graffiti used the backdrop of the protest movement, the conflict in Asia, and other turbulent events to recapture the spirit of the sixties. But box office lighting didn't strike twice; the film was a commercial failure.
Producer: Francis Ford Coppola
Director: George Lucas
Screenplay: George Lucas, Gloria Katz, Willard Huyck
Art Direction: Dennis Clark
Cinematography: Jan D'Alquen, Ron Eveslage
Costume Design: Aggie Guerard Rodgers
Film Editing: Verna Fields, George Lucas, Marcia Lucas
Original Music: Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly
Cast: Richard Dreyfuss (Curt Henderson), Ron Howard (Steve Bolander), Paul Le Mat (John Milner), Charles Martin Smith (Terry Fields), Cindy Williams (Laurie), William M. Niven (Clerk), Debbie Celiz (Wendy).
C-113m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.
by Jeff Stafford